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6 Questions to Ask Before You Pick a Financial Planner

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From income to investments, life goals to money woes, your first meeting with a financial planner will likely be full of questions. But keep in mind that the planner shouldn’t be the only one doing the asking. “It’s important to have the right fit with your planner, so that you’re as confident in their recommendations as you are comfortable talking to them,” says Johanna Turner, CPA, CFA, founder of Milestones Financial Planning. Even if the pro comes highly recommended by your sister’s friend’s cousin, she might not be the best match for you. Here’s what to ask—before you pick a planner. 

1. WHAT CREDENTIALS DO YOU HAVE?

Anyone can say they’re a financial planner, because that’s not a regulated term, so you have to dig beyond the label. If someone’s a certified financial planner (CFP), it means they’ve completed extensive coursework in everything from cash flow issues to stock portfolio balancing, they passed a written exam, and they have at least some experience in the field. You might not need a CFP if you have a specific, targeted question (say, about insurance), rather than big-picture, holistic help. But either way, inquire about credentials.

2. WHO WILL I BE WORKING WITH?

This one might seem weird to ask, but you can’t always assume that the planner you’re meeting with would be your go-to resource. “The planner might have a solo practice or might work with a whole team of people,” says Sophia Bera, CFP, founder of Gen Y Planning. “You might really click with that planner, but then wind up working mainly with someone else at the firm or only seeing her at quarterly meetings. It’s good to ask, so you’re not disappointed.” 

3. HOW ARE YOU COMPENSATED?

“Don’t be afraid to ask about fees upfront,” says Turner. That’s because there can be a huge range in how much planners charge, from $1000 a year for more straightforward finances or a less experienced pro to $5000 or more for more complicated situations with a super-experienced planner. If someone’s well outside your budget, you want to know that up front.

Also ask about how fees are structured: Most planners are commission only (meaning she earns a commission when she sells you, say, insurance), fee-only (charges by the hour, by a flat fee, or by a percentage of assets managed), or fee-based (charges a consultation rate and a commission). A fee-only planner is often considered the best choice, because you don’t have to worry that any recommendations are motivated by how much commission he’s making from the money move.

4. WHAT'S YOUR TYPICAL CLIENT LIKE?

Pick a planner who only deals with high-income, huge-portfolio clients when you’re making peanuts, and you might worry that you’ll be overlooked. Opt for someone who specializes in young Millennials when you have a complicated inheritance issue to figure out, and you might worry that your planner is out of his depth. “Many planners do have specialties, but even if they don’t, ask about the age of their typical clients or how often they handle whatever issue you’re facing,” suggests Turner. If the potential planner’s response leaves you feeling anything less than confident, it might be a sign to keep looking.

5. HOW OFTEN WOULD WE PROBABLY COMMUNICATE?

An annual review with your planner might suffice if your finances are on cruise control, but if the near future is filled with big goals (buying a house, starting a family, getting married, launching a business), you’ll want a planner who’s accessible more often. Does the planner typically meet with clients every quarter or twice a year? Does she blanche when you ask for monthly check-ins by phone? Don’t limit your questions only to frequency, either. “More planners are doing their meetings virtually, which makes it easier to meet frequently with someone even if they don’t live near you,” says Turner. Ask about the mix of email, phone, virtual and in-person communication. There’s no one-size-fits-all, but you want someone who’s going to fit your frequency needs. 

6. WILL YOU BE MY FIDUCIARY?

“When someone is your fiduciary, they’re legally required to put your interests first,” says Bera. You might think all planners would have to do that, but some follow a suitability standard instead, which means they can suggest any product or investment that’s not clearly a bad fit for your situation. Sure, it can be uncomfortable to ask a tough question, says Turner, but you want to know exactly who they are and how they operate before you trust them with your money. “If the planner gets huffy or defensive with your questions, that’s not a good sign,” she says. But you can celebrate that you’ve spotted the red flag before committing to that planner. 

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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